Chiapas, Mexico - Voyages

Mexico : Fiestas all year round!

Alison Victoria Shepherd (UK) - 14 Janvier 2012
All year round it seems that Mexicans have something to celebrate, and the end of the year is no exception.

All year round it seems that Mexicans have something to celebrate, and the end of the year is no exception.

The first and second of November is a time when families get together and welcome their deceased relatives back into the family for a night of food and festivities. El Dia de los Muertos - Day of the Dead - is a pre-Colombian celebration that relfects the way Mexican culture recognises and embraces the intertwined relationship between life and death. It also is an example of the fusion of indigenous beliefs that have endured the cultural devasting of colonisation, and the Catholic influence introduced by the Spanish, as it coincides with the Catholic All Souls' and All Saints' Days: Representations of Catholic saints sit alongside offerings representing the four elements of the earht.

"Whilst dancing on the graves of the dead is an offense in many parts of the world, in Mexico it is a way to celebrate their love"

Festivities vary depending on the place and the family; in larger cities public parades are held with people in skeleton costumes holding burning stakes, dancing through the streets. The more common, and sober way to pass the Day of the Dead is for families to go to the graveyard together along with a picnic of the deceased's favourite foods, which are eaten, and of course shared, with the deceased. Flowers and alcohol offerings are also taken. People go to mourn, but also to celebrate: mariachi bands are sometimes taken along which play both sombre melodies and energetic tunes to which people dance. Whilst dancing on the graves of the dead is an offense in many parts of the world, in Mexico it is a way to celebrate their loved ones' lives and rouse their spirits to return to the land of living for one night a year.

In homes and public places, altars are arranged with articles to represent the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Earth is represented by the presence of orange marigold flowers and fruit offerings; Air by the coloured paper tissue flags that are hung around the table, depicting merry skeletons and other such cheery deathly images, which are left to gently flap in the breeze. To symbolize Fire, candles are lit and encircle the atlar: little lights to illuminate the way of the dead finding their way back to the world to greet their families; finally, glasses of water are placed on the altar so that the dead can rehydrate after their long journey back to the earthly realm. The deceased's favourite foods are placed on the table, as well as the obligatory alcohol offerings - of tequila, mezcal (a potent drink made in Oaxaca from agave plants), or posh - a fermented corn drink popular in Chiapan indigenous communities for its cheapness and potency! On the floor surrounding the altar, pine needles are scattered.

"The indigenous peoples believe that burping is a way of releasing evil from the soul"

During this week, bakeries produce pan de muerto - sweet bread which may be decorated with dough bones. These, and sugar skulls, often find their way onto the altars as well - a perfect example of the colourful (in every sense of the word) way that Mexicans confront the sometimes all-too-present presence of death. In the centre of the altar, photographs of lost loved ones are placed - this can be of family members or of famous figures important to Mexicans. In Palenque I saw images of Digna Ochoa - the indigenous human rights lawyer who was murdered in the 90s; I have also seen many Frida Kahlos - the Mexican painter - as well as her husband Diego Rivera who painted nationalist murals, adorning altar tables. In the Zócalo of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the Zapatistas (a largely indigenous revolutionary group calling for autonomy) arranged an altar paying tribute to the dead or 'disappeared' indigneous campesinos who have been silenced in their campaign of rights for the poor.

In the largest indigenous community in the New World - San Juan Chamula, Chiapas - there lies a very unique church. In the 90s the Chamulans decided they had had enough of the Catholic priests and expelled them from the church, thus taking it for their own. What resulted was a atmospheric mix of Catholicism and indigenous traditions. The church has no pews, instead people sit or kneel on the floor which is covered with pine needles, giving the church a subtle aroma. In contrast to the cold outdoor mountain air, the inside of the church is warm and lit with thousands of candles. Bottles of Coca-Cola and Pepsi are used as offerings. The indigenous peoples believe that burping is a way of releasing evil from the soul, and so when this gaseous drink arrived in indigneous communities, they found it served this purpose very well.  Chicken feathers can also occassionally be found strewn on the floor; remains of rituals performed by traditional medicine men using live poultry.

Propped against the walls of the church are the Catholic saints, safe inside their wooden boxes, decorated with ribbons and mirrors to deflect the devil. On el Dia de la Virgin de Guadaloupe, on the 12th of December, hundreds of depictions of Our Lady can be found. On this day there are parades celebrating the Virgin, and of course, the excuse to celebrate with copious amounts of posh. Paper flags are hung from the outside of churches and people dress up and dance in between the constant noise of fireworks and fire crackers. For Mexicans the Virgin is very important: many believe she can cure the sick and perform miracles; and it has even been said that gang members and criminals go to pray to the Virgin for forgiveness and protection before they head out to work!

Christmas time is also very important as an excuse for family to come together and celebrate. Christmas dinner and fiestas are held on the 24th of December, however in the week running up to then, Mexicans host las posadas. Posadas are a tradition heralding from the act of asking for accommodation from inn to inn, as did Mary and Joseph. So, traditionally, Mexicans would go from house to house singing Christmas carols and asking for lodging, eventually coming to a house where they could rest and celebrate. A warming drink is provided called ponche which is a delicious hot beverage made of fruit, cinammon, and ginger (with the optional addition of alcohol for the parents), and food is offered and shared around. The breaking of the piñata is another custom that has evolved from Christian tradition. Now, of course, piñatas come in many shapes - you can find SpongeBob SquarePants and super heroes for example! - and are made from paper maché. However, orginally piñatas were round, hollow forms of clay with spikes protruding from them which represented the sins of mankind. Christians were blindfolded - a representation of their faith - and given a Bible to brek the piñata so that the treats, which symbolised the rewards of a just and loving God, fell out. Now, it is merely a fun excuse for children to ligitimately exercise their destructive sides, and get rewarded for it with candy!

In this colourful country, where family is king, traditions and celebrations are used as an excuse to unite loved ones. Despite the numerous and complex problems that Mexican society faces today, the Mexican spirit endures and the people always find a way and a means to celebrate - and often!

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